Eric liked Christmas.

He listened to the celebratory bells ringing out from all the churches in the city as he stood in the shadows and waited for the faithful to come out of the big cathedral. It would not be long, now. One of the main reasons he liked Christmas was that the women who would not normally leave the house after dark would all be at Midnight Mass while their less devout husbands snored at home. Then they would have to make their way back to their houses through the filthy, cobbled streets, lit only by a few fitful torches, and who knew what they might encounter in a dark alley somewhere? He grinned, mirthlessly. He knew exactly what - or who - they might encounter.

He was sick of feeding on the human refuse who lived on the streets of Florence - it would be pleasant to sink his fangs into plump, perfumed flesh and drink his fill. He had been here for six months now, and was finding the zeal with which the good citizens guarded their womenfolk slightly annoying. Of course, he could always glamour them, but his sporting instincts preferred the challenge of identifying, stalking and finally claiming his prey without resorting to supernatural means. Naturally, he glamoured them after he had fed, if he left them alive, but beforehand ... it was infinitely more satisfying to see the fear in their eyes as he stepped out from the shadows and they took in his size and his intentions. And, of course, when he revealed his fangs, the surge of additional terror sweetened their blood. There was nothing quite like it...

He straightened slightly as the doors to the great building in front of him swung open and the crowds began streaming out. He watched carefully. There had been a plump, pale Contessa in a vivid pink gown who he had met at a masked ball a few nights before. She had been very attracted by his long, blond hair and his tall, powerful form, as had most of the women there (and a number of the men - effete, overdressed specimens). She had flirted and giggled - the giggle had been annoying after a while - but he had smiled and responded in kind, paying her graceful compliments, and in the end he had discovered where she would be worshipping tonight. She had arrived late for the Mass, with only one attendant, slipping in discreetly through a side door, and he had nearly missed her, but the flash of vivid colour from beneath her cloak had drawn his attention. He took up a position from where he could see both doors, in case she decided to exit the same way, but the crowd was thinning now, as chattering groups dispersed and people made their way home, calling seasonal greetings to one another as they went.

Ah! There she was - the light from the torches in the main entrance flickered on her creamy skin and reflected from her raven hair as she picked her dainty way across the cobbles. He was glad that tradition required people to come to Midnight Mass on foot, as a sign of humility - another reason he liked Christmas. He slipped from his place in the doorway of a large house, and began to follow at a discreet distance...

An hour later, pleasantly full, he was sauntering home reflecting with satisfaction on the experience he had just enjoyed. She had been a trifle too fond of garlic, but on the whole a very pleasant meal. He smiled as he remembered how her soft body had quivered in his hands when he had licked the scarlet thread of blood from between her breasts as it ran down from the wounds in her neck. The contrast between the red and the white was always very aesthetically satisfying. Naturally, he had taken her diamond necklace before feeding. It was in his pocket now. She had begged him not to rob her, and had sobbed and said her husband would beat her for its loss, but he had shrugged and told her it was a judgement on her for her vanity in wearing such a showy trinket to church. That had been before she realised that he would be taking much more from her than her jewels.

He continued to stroll through the night, completely unafraid. The darkness abounded with all manner of threats - footpads, pickpockets, desperate men who would slit a throat in seconds for the sake of the few pence in a wallet, but he knew there was nothing in the dark that was more dangerous than himself.

He frowned slightly as shouts broke out somewhere behind him. No doubt some hue and cry after a less-than-skillful thief. Then he heard the sound of flying footsteps, light - barefoot, probably - moving fast. A child - one of the many starving, homeless waifs who lived on the streets and who had grown so desperate they had snatched something from a stall. They did not afford him more than a mouthful or so - hardly worth bothering with. The footsteps came nearer, and he drew back into a doorway. He could hear loud voices and the pounding of heavier feet in pursuit. Now the faint flicker of torchlight was visible at a little distance. He was not fond of torchlight. It not only spoiled his hunting too often, but he was also far too vulnerable to the flames.

Eric looked to his left. If the fugitive entered this alleyway he or she was lost - it was a dead-end unless you could fly, as he could. He knew that on the far side of the eight-foot brick wall was a courtyard, which led in turn to a maze of small streets where one could easily lose pursuers, and there was an entrance to it from the next alley, but not this one. Most of the straccioni - the ragamuffins - knew their way around this city better than he did, having been dragged up on its noisome streets, but he waited to see what would happen.

Sure enough he heard laboured breathing and the light pattering of feet, and then a small dark shape entered the passageway. They were done for, then. He remained where he was as the thief drew level with his dark doorway and then suddenly skidded on some nameless piece of refuse, crying out sharply, crashing to the ground with a force that knocked the breath clean out of her. For it was a her. Although there was no moon, his night-adapted eyesight revealed a spill of long blonde hair, and the scent was unmistakeably female.

The woman sobbed for breath as she tried to drag herself to her feet, but it was too late. Her pursuers had been closer than she knew, and had seen her turn into the alley where she had hoped to hide from them. They blocked the entrance - four men, one in the uniform of the Cardinal's guard. They relaxed as the light from their torches showed them their victim, and also revealed her more clearly to Eric. She was young. Not too young - maybe twenty - and from what he could see under the grime, she was pretty. Her clothes, although dirty, were not rags. Not a street child then - or if so, she had not been one for long. A whore, perhaps, who had robbed a client. She struggled upright, backing away from the men, but now she was limping heavily, her breath coming in gasps. The men were beginning to close in on her, and she whimpered with fear, retreating until she could go no further. They laughed as they approached, and one said, "we've got you now, you harlot of Satan! Thought you could escape from us, did you? No-one escapes the vengeance of God. His Reverence will reward us well for such a fine catch, and then we'll find you some snug lodgings for the night."

The guard laughed. "Yeah, you'll be safe and sound in the palace dungeons. And we'll find you some pretty iron jewellery for those dainty wrists and ankles."

The woman said, in a low voice, "please, you must believe me, I'm not a witch. I'm a good girl, I was at Midnight Mass earlier! Would I go to church if I was a witch? Would I be wearing this?" With trembling hands she reached into her bosom, drawing out a small crucifix on a gold chain and showing it to them. Eric could see the whites of her eyes as she looked from one to the other of her pursuers. "Please, show some mercy, signori - I swear I'm not a witch - Signora Alighieri denounced me because she didn't like her husband trying to kiss me in the tavern. Please let me go ... !"

Ah. Neither a thief nor a whore, then. Eric understood now. It was not uncommon for women (and men) to be accused of witchcraft by rivals or enemies. The city fathers were ready enough to believe the accusations. The girl would be hauled off and questioned by the inquisitors before a decision would be made as to her fate. He didn't hold out much hope for her to be honest - the priests seemed to have a prejudice against attractive women. Possibly because their vows meant they would never taste one. He mentally shrugged, and hoped they would hurry up and take her - he wanted to be on his way. The men had passed his refuge now, and were about to lay hands on the terrified girl when the scent reached him. It was blood, but no ordinary blood. This was delightful; Eric's nostrils flared as he inhaled, savouring the perfume. It was rich yet subtle, with a sweetness that overpowered even the smell of the garbage-strewn alley. She must have cut her foot as she fell, which would explain the limp.

He never did fully understand the impulse that overtook him at that point, although he often tried to analyse it in later days. He doubted that it was her beauty - he had had the loveliest women in Europe - nor was it compassion for her situation. What the humans did to one another was of no interest to him. Whatever the reason, he found himself stepping out of the darkness and saying, "she is not for you."

The men span round with startled grunts of surprise. They held their torches high, and saw the figure of a single man standing in the torchlight, between them and the exit from the alley. They took in his height, his aristocratic bearing and his elegant clothes, and were unsure what to make of him. They had never been challenged like this before - they knew that their work was sanctioned by God and the church, and to go against them was to go against the orders of the Cardinal himself

The guard, possibly emboldened by the fact that Eric did not appear to carry a sword, said, "She's not for you, neither, signore. She belongs to mother Church now - the Inquisition will take good care of her." He laughed coarsely. "She escaped from us once, she will not do so again. We'll have a merry bonfire on St Stephen's day!"

The girl whimpered, leaning against the wall at her back. Eric debated his next move. He was no longer hungry, so what to do with them. Glamour them? Show a little fang, and frighten them away? No. He had not killed in nearly a week, and then it had only been a fool who had barged against him in a clumsy attempt at picking his pocket as he crossed the river by the Ponte a Santa Trinita. Eric had been in a good mood that night, so he had simply snapped his neck and dropped the corpse over the balustrade into the Arno, where it had bobbed and drifted sluggishly among the other detritus. He felt like a little exercise after his meal, although the four men hardly presented a challenge. Perhaps he should do it with one arm behind his back…

The men were shifting uncertainly now, unnerved by his continued silence. The girl's eyes were darting between them. She didn't know where the most danger lay - with the men who had followed her, or with the tall, silent stranger. But then, her mind was made up for her. Suddenly, he was gone from his place, and the torches that three of the men had been carrying were extinguished. She gasped as thick, smoky darkness fell in the little alley, and then she shrank back, terrified at the sounds that filled the air. A thud and a clatter as the pike carried by the guard hit the ground, then a series of gurgles, gasps, horrible choking noises, and something even less pleasant - a hideous, wet, squelching sound. She strained her eyes to see, but the night was overcast - no moon or stars to help her. In the darkness, her sense of smell was heightened, and she detected something sickly sweet and metallic on the air. She knew that smell - she had often walked past the slaughterhouses in the Oltrarno district.

Then, silence fell. But not for long. It was broken by footsteps slowly approaching her. She cringed, and then let out a tiny shriek as she felt velvet-covered fingers on her cheek. They took a firm grip on her chin, and tilted her face this way and that, as though inspecting her, but surely no-one could see anything in this gloom. Still, somehow, she was aware of being studied. Then the hand left her face and strong fingers took her hand in an iron clasp. "Come with me." It was the cultured, faintly accented voice of the stranger. He tugged and she took a step towards him, and then stumbled, gasping in pain. She had forgotten about her foot - she didn't know what she'd cut it on, but it wouldn't take her weight. She nearly fell, but the stranger caught her neatly and lifted her into his arms. "Very well." And he strode out of the alley back to the main street, stepping over something that lay on the ground as he did so.

She didn't dare look up, but could feel her cheeks burning as she blushed furiously at the unfamiliar sensation of being clasped in a man's arms. In spite of working in the tavern, and fending off the advances of Signor Alighieri and his like on an almost daily basis, she was still an innocent in matters of the flesh, and had never been this close to a man before. Not that she had not seen more than enough, in her time, but to see it (and possibly daydream a little about it) was one thing - to experience it was something else. In spite of her embarrassment, it was not unpleasant being carried like this. She could tell that her rescuer was strong - he barely seemed to notice her weight - and his arms were as hard as iron bands. He smelled good, too - better than anyone she had ever smelled - and the velvet of his cloak was soft against her cheek.

As he strode silently across the now-deserted Piazza del Duomo she became concerned that his good clothes would be stained by the mud and filth that spattered her own. She had been clean enough when she'd arrived for work at the tavern that afternoon, but a long shift on a busy day - Christmas Eve always brought out those who wanted to drink double to make up for the tavern being closed for the Holy Nativity - followed by arrest and escape from those horrible men had sullied her gown beyond repair. When the sour-faced Signora had denounced her as a witch who tempted good women's husbands away from the marriage bed, she had been pelted with filth by people she had thought of as … well, not friends, exactly - she had no real friends - but at least acquaintances who tolerated her and her peculiarities.

She remembered the hatred on their faces, and the triumph on the Signora's as she had been seized and led away, sobbing, by members of the Cardinal's guard. If it hadn't been for that horse and cart shedding its load of oranges and causing such confusion in the piazza she would never have got away, but she had succeeded in dashing down a narrow street, losing her shoes in the process, and in through the side door of Santa Maria delle Vigne. She had hidden behind one of the statues of the Virgin until well after dark, and had then slipped out and joined the congregation at Midnight Mass, before trying to exit the church with them. That had worked until the crowds had disappeared as people turned away in ones and twos, heading for their own houses. She couldn't go back to the single room which had been her home since her grandmother died - they would be looking there for her - but as the last of the devout disappeared from the streets, she'd been spotted and had been forced to run again. She had all but given up hope when she realised she had mistaken the alley in her panic, and ended up in a dead end. And then … she could hardly believe salvation had come in the shape it had.

She didn't know exactly what he'd done to those men, but she said a silent prayer for their souls. And a prayer for herself. She knew what awaited her if she was caught again - she'd always tried to avoid the burnings, but she couldn't help but hear the details, sometimes. She shuddered at the thought, causing the man who was carrying her so easily to glance down for a second before he returned his gaze to the area around them. The piazza was well lit and her eyes could make out the features above her. The well-shaped nose and firm lips; the high cheekbones and pale skin, and above all, the hair. It was long and fair, like her own, hanging over his shoulders like a shining waterfall. Even without the accent, you could tell he was not from round here, where nearly everyone was dark … she wished she could see his eyes. She tried to guess what colour they were. She hoped they were blue, like hers; Since her mother died, she hadn't met a single other person with blue eyes and fair hair. Another reason she stood out. As though she needed another one…

He crossed the bridge leading from the piazza and entered the wealthy district. The houses were larger here, three and four stories high, and richly decorated. She'd frequently walked past them and seen the beautifully dressed, high-born lords and ladies stepping from their carriages to attend some party or other; the great doors opening and light and music and laughter spilling out onto the street, allowing those on the outside a few seconds' glimpse of the elegance and luxury within. Not that she envied such people - envy was a sin, and from what she had seen of them, they were no happier than people at her level, who worked for a living.

That didn't mean there were no dangers here - the rich rarely stirred abroad without their servants and armed guards. A lone man, burdened with a young woman, was a potential target. As they passed a darkened doorway, a darker shadow detached itself from the wall and took a step forward into the torchlight, an unmistakeable purpose in its stance.

"Your purse, good sir." The voice was hoarse, but there was a real threat in it. Eric glanced at the knife in the man's hand, and his own hand moved to cover the girl's eyes.

"I think not. Find yourself another victim." Then he snarled at the menacing figure, revealing two long, glistening fangs. The man's eyes widened, and he silently retreated back into the darkness from which he'd emerged. Eric removed his hand and continued on his way.

The girl looked up at him, doubtingly, but remained silent until he began to climb the steep slope, his long legs striding easily up the incline. Where were they going? Only the very richest lived up here, on the heights. She found her voice. "Please, signore, wh … where are you taking me?"

He glanced down. "So you have found your voice, have you? I wondered how long it would be. I am taking you to my home."

"Oh." A brief pause. "Why?"

Why indeed. He had spent some of the walk pondering that same question. The obvious and immediate answer was because he wanted her blood. It smelled … unusual, and he was a connoisseur of the unusual. And that reminded him. Her foot was still bleeding, and he did not want an incriminating scarlet trail leading inconveniently to the door of the palazzo he had bought when he first arrived in the city. He set her down, steadying her until she leaned against the nearby wall, then he crouched down in front of her, lifting her injured foot and pulling a handkerchief from his sleeve.

"Oh no, signore, that is not necessary…"

She tried to pull her foot away from him but with a growled, "be still," he took it in a firm grip and inspected it. Although the bleeding had slowed, the cut was deep and he swiftly bound it with the handkerchief. Crouched over it like this, the smell was a lot stronger, and he deliberately stopped breathing it in, but as he straightened up, he noticed he had a small smear of it on his glove, and he couldn't resist it. He turned his back to her, so she couldn't see what he was doing and licked the stain experimentally.

He was completely unprepared for the intensity of the flavour that burst on his tongue. He had known it would be different, but this…He closed his eyes for a few seconds, swaying, then he leaned against the wall briefly, struggling for mastery over the urge to turn and drain the woman where she stood.

"Signore?" She sounded wary, wondering what strange fit had taken him. He drew a deep breath and held it, willing himself to be calm. He had to find out more about this creature - whatever she was, she was not fully human. His maker had told him of other supernatural beings who inhabited the remote places of the world, and he had encountered Werewolves and other shapeshifters, but she was certainly not one of those - their blood was rank and quite repellent. This was anything but…

His control once more in place, he turned to face her again. "I am taking you to my home because … because your foot needs to be cleaned and bandaged. It is still bleeding." The excuse was flimsy enough, but it would serve. "Now close your eyes." She made no move to obey him, instead staring up at him intently through thick, golden lashes. "Close them or I will blindfold you." He spoke firmly and the long lashes dipped obediently, hiding the blue depths of the lovely eyes they fringed. He lifted her again and struck off the main path onto the side road that led to his home. The house itself was an old one; he liked its air of decayed grandeur amid the garish modern buildings that were being thrown up so hastily by the newly-prosperous merchant classes. Eric valued the old above the new - it connected him to his past. He felt at home here, and liked to roam through the echoing, empty rooms at night, feeling the ghosts of past tenants.

When he arrived at the side door to his house he shouldered it open, depositing his burden in a chair and locking and bolting the door behind them. She tensed slightly as she was lowered, but obediently kept her eyes shut, simply feeling the carved wooden arms of the chair with her slim fingers.

He removed his stained cloak and gloves, tossing them onto a table. Then he scooped her up again, ignoring the faint squeak of surprise, and carried her along the short passage to the main entrance hall and from there into the library, his favourite room. There was a small grate, with a fire laid and ready for a taper, and two large tapestry wing-chairs near it. He seated her in one of them, and turned to the bell-pull, tugging it sharply to summon his manservant.

"You may open your eyes now."

There was a pause and she said, "signore, I have done so, but there does not seem to be much point. It is completely dark in here. I can hear you but I still cannot see you." There was a timid note in her voice, as though afraid to be thought critical, and he smiled at the reminder. Of course, he had forgotten the limitations of human senses. Still, Roberto would bring a lamp when he came - although he had served Eric faithfully for a number of years, he was still human and needed the light. The man had begged Eric to turn him on many occasions, but he had never done so - he found it too useful to have someone about him who could operate during the day. But he kept the promise in reserve - an incentive, if you liked.

"Wait one moment." He saw a line of light appear under the door, then it opened and his valet came in. He was a small, greying, slightly stooped figure, who gave the impression of being somehow dusty. Not prepossessing, but obedient, discreet and efficient, and that was all Eric required in his servants.

"Padrone?" The valet's voice was quiet and respectful. If he saw the young woman's face peeping round the high back of the chair, he made no comment, but fixed his eyes on his employer. Eric had trained him well.

"Bring water, soap, and …" Eric glanced at the girl. "Do you want food?" She nodded. "And food. Oh, and women's clothing." The chests and linen-presses upstairs were full of garments; some old ones left behind by previous owners, some newer, taken from the bodies of his victims. The corpses were much easier to dispose of unclothed; who noticed another body apparently stripped by thieves and dumped in the Arno?

"Yes, Padrone. Which shall I bring first?"

"The food," Eric decided. "She can clean up when she has eaten."

The valet bowed and left, stopping to light the lamps and the fire at Eric's command.

Once the room glowed with amber, he seated himself in the chair opposite the girl. They looked at each other in silence for a moment or two. She seemed to be overcoming her fear, now, and stretched out her bare toes towards the slowly growing warmth of the fire. He studied her discreetly. There were bruises on her arms and her cheek, and some swelling. Presumably those men had handled her roughly. It was a pity; her skin looked flawless apart from that. He would deal with it, along with her foot, once she had eaten.

"I've never met a witch before," Eric remarked in a conversational tone of voice.

"I'm not a witch!" indignant blue eyes glared at him, but then she remembered she was speaking to her preserver. "Scusi, signore; I was accused by a jealous woman, but I am no witch."

"Relax. I was only joking. I know you serve in a tavern. Why would you do that if you could work magic?"

She nodded. "I have always thought that. We see the trials and the executions, and it seems to me that if these men and women were really gifted with some power, they would use it to escape, but they never do. I think they are mostly just unlucky - they have a wart, or a squint, or offend the wrong man."

"Or woman, in your case."

"Ah. Signora Alighieri. She thinks I am after her husband. She must be mad - what would I want with an old goat like that? And if I were interested in any man it would not be one who belonged to someone else."

"And are you not? Interested in any man?"

"No. Well, I might be, but they are not interested in me. Or not for long." A rueful expression crossed her face.

"Why not? Has no-one ever offered for you?" Eric was intrigued. There was nothing about her appearance that would make her undesirable - on the contrary, once she was clean and out of those disgusting clothes he suspected she might be quite lovely. She was young, apparently healthy - he could smell no disease. Even though she worked in a tavern, she should not be lacking in suitors.

"Oh, I've had offers, but they were not the sort any decent woman would entertain."

"And your parents never made a match for you?"

She shrugged. "They drowned when I was little. I lived with Nonna, my grandmother, after that. There was a young man - Samuele - but Nonna fell sick and I couldn't leave her. She died last year. Since then, I've been on my own. I was lucky to get a job in the Vineleaf, and I do alright. Signor Russo - the owner - was a friend of my father's. They were sailors together and when he lost an arm and opened the tavern he used to let me come and play while he and my father drank wine and talked about the sea. He used to call me Biondina - little blonde one. I think that's why he gave me the job - he thinks it's unusual to have a blonde waiting tables. The patrons think I'm a freak, but they still like to look at me. I don't mind them looking, as long as they don't touch." She shivered slightly, although she was no longer cold.

Eric hadn't expected her to open up quite so much, but suspected from her words that she was isolated, possibly lonely. Caring for a sick relative would leave little time for normal social activities, and her young man had obviously chosen not to stay around. This was an advantage from his point of view - animals on the fringes were far easier to cut out of the herd than those in the centre, who were protected by families or large social networks.

Just then Roberto came back with a platter of fruit and meat, and a beaker of wine. He drew a table to the side of the chair and placed the food on it with a bow, and then withdrew. The girl glanced at the man sitting opposite her, and he gestured that she should continue. She crossed herself, and started in on the food. She ate daintily - clearly not starving, just healthily hungry, and he continued to question her as she fed.

"Biondina. I like it. But what is your true name?"

"Succhi."

That puzzled him. Succhi? Juice? What sort of a name was that? "Why did your parents call you 'Juice'?"

She grinned and said, "well, it's Susana really, but nobody calls me that." She leaned forward and took a blackened stick from the edge of the fire and scrawled carefully in the hearth. She spelled out the name S-O-O-K-I-E. Eric's eyebrows rose - she could write? No wonder her neighbours saw her as a freak. "My mother taught me to do that - she always called me Sookie. She was not from round here. My father met her on one of his voyages to the north and they fell in love and he brought her home with him. I get my hair and eyes from her." She looked across at him. "I think you must be from the north, too."

He nodded. "From far to the north." That was as much as he was going to tell her, so he turned the subject back to her arrest and escape from the guards. She told him everything, growing more and more relaxed as she warmed up and her hunger was satisfied. Finally she pushed back her plate with a sigh, and said, "and then you came. I truly thank you, signore for rescuing me." She shuddered. "They were so angry when I escaped them. They would have been … very rough with me, I think."

"It looks as though they have already been rough with you." He gestured to the bruising on her face and arms, and her hand stole up to touch her cheek, wincing as her fingers brushed it lightly. He felt the lust begin to burn within him, as he imagined his own long, white fingers caressing her delicate features, skimming across her lips, gripping the pale column of her throat … he ruthlessly forced the feeling down and stood up suddenly. He had come to a decision. "I will heal it for you. And your foot."

"Are you a physician, then?" Her eyes were wide.

"Yes." It did not matter what lie he told her - he was about to glamour her. He rang the bell again and Roberto came immediately with a basin of water, a rough towel and a small pot of soap. He set them down and removed the platter, returning a moment later with a heap of garments which he laid over a nearby chair, together with a small mirror and a comb. Eric gestured at them. "I shall return shortly. Wash yourself, and put on clean clothes," he said and rose to his feet. He knew she would never remove her garments while he was in the room.

He moved to the door, only to be stopped by the sound of her voice. He turned back. She had lifted the pot to her nose and was smelling it

"This is lovely. It smells … like flowers."

"It is from the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella." He only used the best, but her eyes widened as he named the famous perfumery of the Dominican chemist-friars. All the world had heard of their preparations, and they had been in the city for hundreds of years.

She set the pot down again. "I cannot use this, signore - it is far too costly."

"Nonsense. Besides, I have no other. Do as you are told." His tone was impatient, and she shrank back a little, and he left the room. But he did not go far. The hall had an entrance to a secret passage which contained a number of spy-holes looking into the library and other rooms, and he swiftly found the one that gave him the best view of the girl. She was slowly peeling herself out of her filthy skirt and blouse, and soon she stood there in her shift. She wrinkled her nose as she looked at the clothes, and then put them neatly behind the chair. Then she removed his handkerchief from her injured foot, and washed herself thoroughly, wincing as she touched her injured cheek. He was disappointed - he had hoped that she would strip off, but she was obviously modest. Still, she was standing in front of the fire, and the yellow glow silhouetted her figure through the fine white fabric of her shift. He had been right. She was quite lovely.

When Sookie was finished, she set the bowl in the hearth and went across to the clothes, leaning on the furniture to take the weight from her injured foot. The servant had brought a number of garments, all in silk or velvet and she stroked the soft fabric longingly before shaking her head and looking further through the pile. She couldn't wear anything this rich. She was dismayed to find nothing that wasn't of the finest fabric, but at last, near the bottom of the pile, she came across a simple brown skirt and white blouse which would have to do. She reluctantly put them on, and then reached for the hand mirror, studying it curiously.

Eric smiled as he watched her. She appeared more interested in the mirror itself than in her own reflection. It was made from glass with a mercury backing, and he doubted if she had ever seen one before. He had picked it up in Venice a few years ago - an outrageously expensive toy, costing hundreds of scudi, but the Venetians made the best glassware of all sorts. Then she picked up the comb and began working it through the tangles in her hair - it was exactly the same colour as his own - before returning to her seat by the fire, clearly waiting for him. He re-entered, and she stood up, steadying herself against the arm of the chair, resting just the tip of her toes on the floor. He said, "Sit down. Now I shall heal you." He brought a straight-backed chair across and sat in front of her, looked deep into her eyes, and reached for her mind.

Then he frowned slightly and tried again. No, he was not mistaken. She was looking at him, a slightly nervous smile on her lips as she took in his frown, but there was not a trace of the vacant look which a glamoured human should wear. This was odd. More than odd - it was unique in his experience.

"How do you feel?" he asked.

"My foot is much better, thank you signore. But you should not have knelt in the street like that." She looked remorsefully at the mud and dirt that still marked his breeches. "Your beautiful clothes …"

"Never mind my beautiful clothes! I meant, how do you feel … inside? In your head?" He wasn't quite sure how to ask the question - he'd never had to ask it before.

"In my head?" Now she was more than nervous. She licked her lips, her little pink tongue caressing the plump flesh, and he was assailed with a sudden desire to taste them for himself. He put it aside for the moment - he was intrigued by her reaction. There was definite fear there, suddenly - he could smell it. She shrank back in her chair, staring straight at him, and now there was a small frown on her brow as though he was not the only one who was intrigued. There was something odd going on here. He tried once more, putting forth every ounce of will he had, and then sat back in his chair, unable to believe this. His glamour had failed!

"What are you?"

The question came simultaneously, seemingly forced from both of them. Then both tried to recover, "I mean …" Again, they duplicated the other one's words and stopped, awkwardly.

They looked at one another, slightly embarrassed, and then Eric said, "it seems we both have something to tell the other one. Something … unusual. Am I right?"

She hesitated and said, "how did you know?"

"How did you know?"

She shrugged, glancing away, and then back at him, her blue eyes blazing with truth as she said "I am not a witch! I swear it by the Holy Virgin! I am not a witch!"

"I believe you. So, what are you?"

His calm voice had an effect, but still she hesitated. "I asked you first."

"No you did not. But, if you tell me your secret, I will tell you mine. And just to reassure you, I am not a witch either."

She smiled slightly. "That I do believe. Although, back in the Strada di Due Gatti …" that was the name of the alley where he had found her.

"That was not witchcraft. But I am very fast, and I have good night vision."

"Oh." She sounded doubtful. "But why can't I …?" She stopped.

"Go on," he prompted. "Why can't you…?"

She glanced around, and licked her lips again. Damn, he wished she would stop doing that…

"If I tell you, do you swear you will not betray me?"

"I am not in the habit of betraying my guests." This was true, but only because he never had guests. Only victims.

But his words seemed to reassure her. She leaned forward and said quietly, "I am not a witch, but I am under a curse." His lifted eyebrow invited her to continue. "Ever since I was a tiny child, I have been cursed - I don't know why. My mother always said it was not a curse, but I cannot see why the good God would do such a thing to one of his children…"

"Do what?"

"I can…hear the thoughts of the people around me. All of them - men, women, children - all the time." She stopped and waited for Eric's reaction, but his face gave nothing away. Still, at least he hadn't recoiled from her in fear or horror. She continued. "Sometimes I think I will go mad from the thoughts, and since Nonna died I have had no-one to talk to about this. She understood, and she tried to help me, but it has been growing harder and harder …" she turned her face away from him for a few seconds, and he saw her hands were clenching. Then she looked back at him. "But you … I cannot hear you at all. It is like … like a dark cave in your head, with no echoes. Why can I not hear you?"

Eric shook his head, and said, "I don't know." He was considering how much to tell her. Even though this talk of a curse was nonsense, and he was still no nearer finding out what she was, he had no reason to doubt her words. She was clearly something very strange, so why not a mind-reader? The Gods knew he had encountered odder things than that in the last six hundred years. He reached a decision. He would tell her the truth. Or, at least, a version of it. Her own secret was so potentially dangerous that he knew she would not betray his. They each held the other's safety in the palm of their hand. He also decided that, even though he could not glamour her, he would not kill her. At least, not yet. She was too intriguing. Perhaps it would be pleasant to spend some time with her over the next few nights, seeing if he could discover any more. It was a long time since he had had a live-in food source. She would not be going anywhere, not with the Inquisition looking for her. He made up his mind, and said, "Maybe it is because I am not a normal man."

"What is wrong with you?"

He looked away, sadly. "I too am under a curse." When he glanced back, her face was full of sympathy, and she reached out to touch his hand in understanding, before jerking her own hand back and gasping at the chill of his flesh. He had forgotten he had removed his gloves - he wore them nearly all the time when interacting with humans as his cold touch always startled them. He smiled ruefully. "That is part of it. My skin is always icy."

Slowly Sookie reached out and put her hand back on his, stroking it gently. "What else?" she said, softly. Eric stared at her. This was bizarre - she was actually sorry for him. Still, her compassion could only be helpful. He shrugged internally, deciding on the best way to increase her sympathy. "I am doomed to walk the night for eternity - never to see the blessed light of day." He glanced at her, wondering if he was overdoing it slightly, but no, her expression showed nothing but concern. She believed him implicitly. He sighed. "I can never taste the food of mortal man, but am forced to live out an unnatural existence, feeding on …" he paused, dramatically.

"What?" he had her hooked - he could feel her curiosity.

"I can only feed on … blood." He dropped his voice on the last word, heaving another sigh.

"Blood? Human blood?" her voice was a mixture of curiosity and distaste, but she didn't recoil.

"Yes. It is agony to me, but I have no choice."

She was silent for a few minutes, and he waited for her reaction. "How did you come to be cursed in such a horrible way?"

"Once, long ago, I attempted to do a good deed. I tried to help someone who was cursed, and I suffered the same fate as him. I will not tell you how, I do not like to speak of it - it was many years ago, but the recollection of it is still painful to me."

He looked away, as though his memories were too much for him, and Sookie immediately sat back and said, "of course, forgive me. I did not mean to pry. But I am so sorry, signore … I wish there was something I could do to help."

Ah. That was his cue. He looked back at her, giving her his most wistful expression. "There is."

"What? How may I help you? Anything."

"You could let me … but no. It would be asking too much." He was playing her as he would play a fish, luring her skilfully onto his hook. He was a past master at this.

Sure enough she said, "what? Tell me. Please." Now her tone was eager, almost pleading. He had judged her correctly. Now he would pull her in.

He looked back at her, using a firm but noble tone. "It is of no importance. I have gone without for many days. I can manage."

"Gone without what?" her eyes widened as she realised what he meant. "Gone without food? Without … blood?"

"Yes, but it is of no importance. I would rather grow weak from hunger than take advantage of a young woman's trust. Please, do not trouble yourself for me. I am accustomed to it."

"How much do you need?"

"Not a lot. But as I said, it is of no importance."

"I insist. You saved me from the Inquisitors - it is the least I can do. Truly. Let me show you my gratitude. I want to."

"Truly?" He had her.

She nodded firmly. "Truly. I mean it."

He put a yearning tone into his voice. "If you are truly sincere …" she nodded again. "I would count it a priceless gift." He had brought her along nicely so far; there was just one more step he had to take. He swiftly considered the best way to do this. "But before I accept your generous offer, you must permit me to heal you as I promised."

"So you really are a physician. I did wonder - none of the physicians I have ever seen live in a house like this." She glanced around.

"I am not just a physician. I have many skills. I have lived for a very long time - another part of my curse."

"How old are you?"

He smiled. "You would not believe me if I told you. Old enough to have learned to do a great many things."

"So, what can you do?"

"I can … play the guitar."

She smiled. "So can I. What else?"

"I can speak fifteen languages."

"That is impressive. I can only speak one."

"That is all you need. Now, let me see your face." He moved the lamp closer, allowing the light to fall fully on her bruised cheek. He examined it professionally, and said, "hmm. Yes. I can heal this. Do you want me to?"

"Will it hurt?"

He shook his head. "No, I promise you there will be no pain - at least, not for you."

"What do you mean?"

"The curse I spoke of? There is more to it, I'm afraid. I don't know why, but it also altered my physical appearance. It gave me teeth like an animal …" he tried to think of an animal she would have encountered. "a bit like a dog." He carefully avoided the word 'fangs'. "But there is one good thing that has come out of it. I have discovered if I pierce my own flesh with these teeth, I can heal with the blood that comes from the wound."

"Oh. That sounds … painful."

"For you, I will do it."

"But why? Why are you doing this for me? I have done nothing for you - you do not know me, I am not your kin..."

"You have offered me your blood. This is not nothing."

"Oh. I see. Will it hurt you very much?"

He shrugged, avoiding her gaze. "A little." He used the noble voice again, allowing her to believe that it would be excruciating for him, when in reality it was nothing at all. "Now, are you ready?"

"If you are sure, signore. Oh…"

"What?" He paused, just as he had been about to reveal his fangs to her.

"Do you … I mean … have you a name?" She laughed a little, embarrassed. " Well, of course, I know you must have a name, but is there a name I may call you?"

He smiled. "My name is Eric. Eric da Scandinavo. That is the nearest I can come to my real name in your language."

"Eric da Scandinavo." She tried the unfamiliar syllables.

He nodded. "Yes. And now, let me help you. Turn your face to the light."

She did so, and he turned away from her briefly, dropping his fangs and puncturing the tip of his finger with one of them. He quickly smeared the blood over her cheek, enjoying the warmth of her living skin under his cold fingers, and then he sat back and watched the swelling reduce and the bruises fading. After a few minutes he washed the blood from her face, using the water from the bowl in the hearth, and then he passed her the mirror.

She gasped as she saw her face, whole and undamaged, and she ran her fingers across the flawless skin. He smiled at her reaction and then stooped for her foot. As he bent, he felt her hand on his cheek, and looked up. Her eyes were on his face. "Let me see. Please."

"You want to see my … teeth? You are not afraid?"

"No. Do not hide them."

"Very well." He smiled and let her see his fangs, gleaming, white, wickedly sharp. She drew in her breath a little, and then reached for them. He pulled back, saying, "You will cut yourself."

"I will be careful. May I?"

He nodded, and closed his eyes as he felt her little fingers touch his lips, then his teeth, and finally they brushed lightly over his fangs. A shudder ran through him at the sensation. He repressed the urge to plunge them into her ripe flesh there and then. This was not the time. Eric was definitely an epicure when it came to blood - if he came across something out of the ordinary he regarded it as something to be savoured and enjoyed at leisure, not hurriedly gulped down in some stinking back alley. And Sookie promised to be something totally out of the ordinary. He had already decided he would not taste her tonight - he was sated from the plump, garlic-loving Contessa. He would enjoy her so much more if he came to her fresh. Tomorrow night, then. He would keep her here today, and then, when darkness fell … Meanwhile, he had to finish his work. This would make her suitably grateful, he was sure.

Sookie felt as though she was in a dream at the moment. After the hideous day she had spent, it was as though she was in a different world. To be snatched from the terror and filth of the alleyway and introduced into warmth and light and luxury, with servants and silk clothes and good food - it was all so different. And then, the strange tale he had told her. It was exactly like the stories Nonna used to enchant her with when she was young, of handsome princes who were cursed by an evil witch and then redeemed by the love of a beautiful maiden. He was certainly handsome enough … and these strange teeth that she was touching - they didn't spoil his looks, somehow. And his eyes were blue - as blue as the sky in summer.

When she withdrew her hands, Eric retracted his fangs and smiled at her, his most charming smile. He knew he was handsome - he traded on it all the time - and it had the desired effect. Her eyes widened and she swallowed, a beautiful blush tinting her clear skin. He realised how very unused she was to the close presence of an attractive male. It was more than possible she was still a virgin. Mmm…

"So, what do you think?"

"I am so sorry for your affliction, signor da Scandinavo. But the teeth are … I think they are … I think they suit you."

He was slightly startled. "Really? You don't think I am … a monster?" He was, but he didn't mind. He had fully embraced his nature centuries ago. It was only others who were troubled by it. And usually, they didn't have very long to be worried …

She shook her head. "No, I think you are as unfortunate as I am. Maybe God has brought us together so that we can help one another." A pretty thought, and he would be more than happy to take advantage of it.

"Maybe so. But at the moment, I am happy to be the one who helps you." He leaned down and lifted her now clean foot into his lap. Then, keeping his eyes on hers, he slowly, deliberately, ran his fangs out again. It was true - she was not disgusted. Her eyes widened, but there was no fear or revulsion in them. This was … unusual. He was used to his fangs generating terror in his victims. He wasn't quite sure how he felt about this, but he dismissed the feeling for the moment. He bit his finger again, allowing himself a slight, brave wince as he did so for her benefit, and then he stroked the bottom of her foot with his bleeding finger.

She giggled as he did so. "That tickles," she said.

"Forgive me. It was necessary." He lifted her foot a little higher and inspected it. The edges of the wound were starting to close, and in a few moments it was healed, but he didn't release his grip immediately. At this angle, the skirt fell back and he saw her shapely calf and a glimpse of thigh. He was tempted to run his fingers across the smooth skin, seeking out the soft, tender place behind her knee, and then higher until …

He was startled by a thunderous knocking on the front door. His head whipped round and he was on his feet in an instant, releasing her foot and facing the library door. He could hear shouting outside, and listening carefully he could make out the words. "This is where he brought her - I saw him carrying her inside. She summoned a demon, with eyes of burning sulphur and hair like serpents!" He recognised the hoarse tones of the man who had threatened them earlier. He should have killed him, of course, but he had not wanted to put the girl down - he'd been enjoying the soft warmth of her body in his arms. Still, it was too late now. He must have followed them, and then run to the authorities. It was possible the bodies in the alleyway had been discovered by now, and his story would have been listened to eagerly.

The pounding on the door intensified, and he heard men shouting, "Open in the name of the Grand Duke!" Then he was across the room and pulling up one of the floorboards. Underneath was a satchel which chinked as he pulled it out of its hiding-place. He slung it over his shoulder and was heading for the door when he heard a whimper behind him. Eric looked across at Sookie, who was cowering in the chair, her eyes wide with terror.

He said, "I am sorry, little Biondina. It was not to be. At least your foot is now healed - you should be able to run with no difficulty. There is a door from the kitchens which leads into the garden. You may be able to hide among the bushes out there." She didn't answer him, but her eyes never left him. He felt in his pocket and pulled out the diamond necklace he had taken earlier. He tossed it to her, saying, "here, use this as a bribe if you have to." She didn't make a move to catch it, and it fell to the floor, clattering against the legs of the chair she sat huddled in. There was a splintering, rending sound as the battering at the door began to have an effect.

He looked round impatiently - it was time to go. He knew Roberto would already be out and away - the man had his own escape routes for these all-too-frequent occasions. He would meet up with him outside the city walls and they would travel on to somewhere new, as he had been doing for so many centuries. It was a shame. This would have been pleasant…

He glanced back at her once more, and that was his undoing. His eyes met hers, and he felt as though he was drowning in those innocent pools of blue. There was no blame or recrimination in them; just the dumb, resigned look of an animal in a trap, about to meet its fate. The crashing grew louder, and he sighed. He had a horrible feeling that he was the one in the trap, and about to meet his fate, but he flashed back to her side, pocketed the necklace and then scooped her up. Her arms went round his neck and he was heading up the stairs at a speed that took her breath away. He went through the attics and out of a gable window, balancing precariously on the leads and her arms tightened round him. He looked down at her and said, "do not be frightened, little one - I will not let you fall."

Now she spoke. "But they will burn the house."

"Let them. We will not be in it. Now, shut your eyes and hold very tight."

Down below, the street was filled with torchlight, and as he stood on the edge of the roof he could see the crowds who had been roused from their beds by the noise. If he hadn't been so absorbed in this woman, he would have heard their approach long before they reached his house, but that in itself was so unusual that he wanted to explore its meaning further. He couldn't recall the last time he had felt this connection with another being - he was normally solitary.

He heard a shout of, "there they are - the witch and her demon lover!" Someone had spotted them. There were screams and yells from below, and someone fired a musket at them, the shot whining off the roof. It did not trouble him, but the girl could be injured. He snarled defiance at the rabble, a magnificent figure against the night, his long blond hair blowing in the breeze, and then he launched himself into the dark sky, beyond the reach of their hatred and petty revenge. Sookie tensed in his arms as she felt the rush of air, but she didn't scream, unlike the mob in the street as they saw him escape their vengeance. Their howls of frustration and terror at his flight rose up to him, and then he was flying high above the city, heading for the walls. He knew where Roberto would be waiting for him - they had long ago scouted out a suitable refuge in the limestone caverns of the surrounding hills, safe from the deadly rays of the sun. He would put Sookie down in a place of safety, well clear of the city, she could take the diamonds and make her way to some other town. It was a pity he had never got to taste her, but life was full of partings; he had learned over the centuries never to look back. Yet, he did feel an unaccustomed pang of regret.

Now he was floating back to earth on the edge of a wood, a safe distance from the walls. He touched down and lowered her to the ground. She staggered slightly and he steadied her before releasing her. He could see her perfectly clearly, but knew that he would be barely a shape in the darkness to her.

She sounded breathless as she said, "is this another part of your curse, signor Eric?"

"Just Eric. And yes, it is. One of the more useful parts. But the biggest disadvantage for me is that I must soon take shelter for the day. If I were to be caught by the sunlight our pursuers would have no need to build a pyre for me - I would burn just as surely as they would burn you."

She shuddered. "Where must you go to be safe?"

"It is better if I do not tell you, mia Biondina, then you cannot be forced to betray me. I know you would not do so voluntarily." Strangely, he was not lying - he did know.

"I am so sorry."

"Sorry? For what?" He could hear the regret in her voice.

"That you had to leave your beautiful palazzo."

He shrugged, although she could not see him. "This is not the first time I have been hunted from my home, and it will not be the last."

"But this time, it was my fault. If you had not rescued me and taken me to your home, they would never have followed you and you would have been safe. I wish I could make it up to you, somehow, but I have nothing of value. All the savings I had were under my mattress in the Via Condittori - I don't dare go back."

"It is unnecessary. I have more than enough money. I will simply find another city to spend it in." And now it is time for me to go."

"Where will you go?" She sounded sad.

Eric thought for a moment. "Maybe Genoa, to the northwest. I've not been there but it is a big port and there are a lot of sailors and travellers there, from all lands. They are bound to have seen Northerners before - my colouring will not be so remarkable."

"Really? That would be nice - to be able to pass through the streets without being stared at…" she sounded wistful.

He paused for a moment, looking down at her. "Would you … care to join me?"

She took a step back and said, "to go to … Genoa? But it is so far away!"

"Not for me. I can fly it in maybe two hours. Why not come? Perhaps you would be safer too."

"I don't know." Her voice was full of doubts, but he suspected it was fear of the unknown, not fear of him. He decided to make sure.

"Little one, are scared of me?"

"Of you? Never." He nodded in satisfaction. There was truth in her voice.

"Then listen carefully. I am going to seek out a resting-place which Roberto has prepared for me. I shall take you there with me, and you can think about what I have suggested during the daylight hours, while I sleep. You will be quite safe - only Roberto will come near. If you decide to stay, then tomorrow night we will go to Genoa together, and then … who knows? We have the whole world to explore. If you choose to leave, you are free to do so. But it is important to me that if you decide to come with me, it is of your own free will." He had had more than enough slaves in the past. A free companion would be … interesting.

"I will come." Her voice was firm now.

"Please be very sure, Sookie. You have seen what can happen. I never know how long I will stay in any one place. You have led a very sheltered existence, I think, and this would mean a very different life for you while you stayed with me."

She smiled in the darkness, but he could see it. "My life in Florence has not been so wonderful that I couldn't bear to leave it behind, Eric. There is nothing here for me - no friends, no home, no family. No safety. Whatever I choose to do, I have to move on. And I would rather do it with you. If you are sure you want me?"

He reached for her hand. "I want you. Do you want me?"

"Yes, Eric."

"Come, then. The dawn will soon be here." He lifted her into his arms again, and took to the sky. He flew towards the hills where his daytime refuge was situated, and behind him he could hear the church bells of the city starting to ring, heralding the birth of the Christ child.

He would sleep the day away, while she remained awake, and alert, thinking about her decision. But they both knew that when he rose that evening, she would be there, waiting for him.